Clinical Burnout: Just a feeling or a scientifically measured phenomenon?

While the phrase “nurse burnout” has been passed around among close-knit circles and family members of nurses, the broader terminology is “clinician burnout,” which encompasses other health and human service workers. Even though the phrase has become a colloquial staple in the nursing field, there is extensive research behind the severity and profound effects of being, well, burned out.

Clinical burnout affects nearly half of all clinicians across the United States, including nurses. In fact, a recent survey presented at American Staffing Association’s Staffing World 2021 Conference indicated that 66% of nurses contribute that COVID-19 has raised their stress levels and 56% admitted to feeling burned out.

While so many nurses are experiencing these adverse occupation-related symptoms or outcomes, many may not report their frustrations for reasons we all understand: fear of losing one’s job, fear of seeming weak, or fear of being perceived as incompetent.

First things first: clinical burnout is a real thing, and it’s been studied and reported on for half a century. We can all thank Dr. Herbert J. Freudenberger for recognizing these feelings of diminished self-esteem, lack of motivation, and reduced commitment as what we now refer to as burnout.

Freudenberger was a psychologist who, in the 60s, had begun to take note of the behaviors his volunteer staff exhibited within the free clinics they worked. Later, other researchers became keenly interested in the burnout phenomena, and, shortly thereafter, the result was the birth of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI).

Christina Maslach is an American social psychologist who is renowned for her work in occupational burnout. In an article published in Journal of Occupational Behaviour, Maslach and Jackson (1981) contributed, “[the MBI] measure contains three subscales tapping the different aspects of experienced burnout and has been found to be reliable, valid, and easy to administer.” (p.100).

According to the MBI, the three subscales are emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment. Each is rated on two variables: frequency and intensity. Users, such as nurses, rate themselves on scales from 1 to 6 on frequency to determine how often they experience these feelings, and they rate themselves on scales of 1 to 7 to determine how strong, or noticeable, the feelings they experience.

Nurses have a very critical place in the history of clinical and occupational burnout, as they comprised one of the many groups of workers within health and human service occupations that the MBI was first administered to. However, the MBI is not the only scale researchers use to measure burnout; in fact, there are several others. Another popular questionnaire the research community employs to measure burnout is the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory (CBI). In an analytical critique published in Work & Stress Journal, called The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory: A New Tool for the Assessment of Burnout, researchers make the case for using the CBI method over the MBI method.

There are similarities among the two scales, but something that really penetrates the surface is the idea that researchers often use nurses and other health and human service workers as the quintessential occupational group to measure burnout.

Clinical burnout is directly linked to personal distress, insomnia, increased use of alcohol, drug use, and marital problems. (Maslach and Jackson, 1981). As the World Health Organization recognizes World Mental Health day, we at Intara Talent would like to take a pause to reflect on the challenges that health care workers face, particularly in today’s environment. The nursing career is a demanding one, and many clinicians are experiencing rapid rises in burnout symptoms.

Need a change of pace?

Intara Talent Solutions is a new talent agency based in Alexandria, VA, designed specifically to match health care professionals (e.g., nurses) with public and private clients around the nation to support program integrity efforts, including compliance and investigative work.  

Click here to learn more about how we can help you apply your healthcare talents into a nonclinical job setting.  

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